Israel has been talking about Syrian messages, indicating Damascus's desire to normalise relations with it. Meanwhile, Syrian sources from Ankara spoke about a meeting sponsored by Moscow at Khmeimim Air Base, between Ali Mamlouk with Gadi Eisenkot. Damascus denied news of the meeting, reaffirmed that the Golan Heights is still occupied and confirmed its position supporting the Palestinians' right to self-determination.
However, Sergey Lavrov's statement on Tuesday and his message to his "Israeli colleagues", "if you have facts that your state is facing threats from the Syrian territory, report the facts urgently and we will take every measure to neutralise the threat," raises the question of what the Kremlin thinks about Syrian-Israeli relations. It may even shed more light on the dynamics of the Russian-Iranian relationship in Syria and around it.
It is no secret that the time when Moscow needed the Iranian military and alliance presence in Syria is long gone. The Kremlin has previously announced that the time for major battles in Syria has ended, and that the destinies of the Syrian north, east and west will be decided on the negotiations table, not on the battlefields. It is also no secret that the Israeli presence in the Syrian skies would not have continued throughout this time and would not have reached the level of killing and demolishing Iranian (and allied) figures and facilities, without Russia turning a blind eye to this – something which no one denies.
READ: Syria denies reports about meeting Israeli officials at Russian air base
Moreover, James Jeffrey's conversations and articles summarising Washington's strategy in Syria were welcomed by the Kremlin, in terms of confirming Washington's acceptance of leaving Syria in Russia's hands and supporting the idea of the withdrawal of US, Turkish and Iranian forces from Syria within the framework of a final settlement. Jeffrey also noted that Washington still adopts the position of not calling for the departure of Bashar Al-Assad, but instead calls for him to rectify his behaviour by loosening his ties with Iran and its allies. Given all of this, it is logical to imagine that Moscow might have thought about the idea of opening backchannels of communication between Al-Assad and Israel, as this completely aligns with the general direction of its policy in the region.
Moscow has always rejected the idea of turning southern Syria into a second south Lebanon and did not accept the theory of "resistance and confrontation" and a unified front and axis. It supports integrating Syria into the political action aimed at achieving an Arab-Israeli settlement, and does not want Damascus to fall behind the considerations that were revived with the approach of the Biden administration in the region. It is logical to assume that Moscow is counting on Damascus to be its gateway to engage as a partner in the Middle East peace process.
However, this approach is blocked by a number of vast obstacles, as Damascus cannot proceed with peace with Israel without regaining the Golan Heights, as Al-Assad said. It is a very embarrassing matter and pulls the last cover over the regime. Al-Assad is also required to break the alliance with Iran and its allies as a prelude to normalising relations with the international community and returning to it. Al-Assad will also be required by the European Union today, and Biden tomorrow, to make more internal breakthroughs, such as involving the remaining opposition in the government, opening public spaces and loosening his tight grip on his opponents. He will be facing challenges that may be downplayed theoretically, but are very difficult in practice – however, not impossible in the foreseeable future.
Russia fears the "economic quagmire" in Syria – reconstruction and the return of the refugees. It is aware that the international community will not provide the required assistance to Damascus without it shifting its positions and alliances. Moreover, Al-Assad is aware that the policy of "economic suffocation" is no less dangerous than the military threat he was facing in the early years of the crisis. Do we believe the "backchannels" narrative and the exchange of messages taking place through these channels regarding the conditions and counter-conditions for any settlement, be it Syrian-Syrian, or Syrian-Israeli?
READ: EU imposes sanctions on Syrian foreign minister
Translated from Addustour, 20 January 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.